Some cars and seats added, but rush hour trains still lacking
Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe
Every seat in the car was taken as the 5:35 p.m. Haverhill train lurched out of North Station on Thursday. Riders filled the aisles, trying to balance themselves and a smartphone or book. A conductor gave up on checking tickets in the jammed car.
Imagine the surprise, then, of the commuters when they learned that the general manager of Keolis Commuter Services had said three days earlier that commuter rail is operating at 80 percent of its regular capacity.
“They’re lying,” said Haverhill commuter Elizabeth Silva, shaking her head. “There’s just no way.”
Keolis is not lying. But it has touted selective statistics to show its steady recovery from the winter storms. It reached 80 percent capacity by adding cars to the trains that are running.
But only 64 percent of the regularly scheduled trains ran this week, Keolis said Thursday. That means those additional seats are not necessarily available on the trains commuters normally rely on.
All the seats were taken on Silva’s car, because the Haverhill line was running at 48 percent of its schedule this past week. The 5:15 p.m. had been canceled. So had the 5:55 p.m.
Riders are not the only ones who find the Keolis stats misleading. Paul Regan, the executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, said numbers about capacity “don’t mean anything” if riders can’t ride the trains they need and when they need them.
“Are they running that much of the potential capacity of the system? Sure,” Regan said. “But what difference does it make if you can’t get a rush hour train?”
Mac Daniel, the spokesman for Keolis, said the company is doing its best to accommodate the same number of customers it transports under normal conditions, but on fewer trains.
“We’re seeing two times the number of passengers that would normally be on any given train because they’re all trying to mash into one for the reduced schedule,” Daniel said.
Many commuters have had to adjust their morning and evening routines for the new schedules. Jonathan Medeiros of Auburn rides the Worcester/Framingham line, which operated only 58 percent of its regular trains this week.
Medeiros used to take the 6:05 a.m. Boston-bound express train out of Worcester. But ever since Keolis canceled that train after the second week of February, Medeiros has been taking the 5:20 a.m. train to get to work on time. Because Keolis also replaced the line’s express trains with local ones, the trip now takes about 15 minutes longer.
Medeiros generally considers himself a public transit cheerleader: He said he used to tell people he loved the commuter rail because he could peacefully drink his coffee and get some work done.
That has changed in the past month. He has seen conductors turn away would-be passengers at stops along the route to Boston because the train is too full. The conductor tells them to wait for the next train, but that one — Medeiros’s usual train — isn’t running. So they have to wait for the next one after that.
Standing near the emergency window while leafing through some papers, Medeiros said Friday morning’s ride, which had been augmented by a double-decker car, was less crowded than usual.
Still, for the first time in more than three years, this public transit cheerleader won’t be buying a commuter rail pass next month. Instead, he’s going to try driving to Boston.
“It’s a little more in gas, but it should save some time and stress,” he said.
Others do not have the luxury of heading to the highway. Joe Hensey of Haverhill does not have a car and relies on the Haverhill line to get to and from his job as an accounting supervisor in Cambridge.
“This has been the worst year, but I don’t have a choice,” said Hensey, who has used the line for six years. “For people who don’t drive, we’re stuck here.”
On Thursday evening, he found himself standing in the aisle of the 5:35 train to Haverhill for 40 minutes because every seat on his car was taken. And the reduced schedule has not eliminated delays: For the past few weeks, Hensey’s commute has ranged from two hours and 15 minutes to three and a half hours, door to door.
Next week, Keolis officials have promised to add three inbound trains and two outbound trains to the Haverhill line. In all, they plan to restore 42 scheduled trains to their lines, which will allow them to operate at 75 percent of their normal schedule — up from the current 64 percent.
Officials with Keolis insist the company is on track to keep its promise of restoring full service by March 30. Hensey, however, said he has learned to take those promises with a grain of salt.
“They’ve been talking about getting it all up in a couple of weeks, but I don’t see that,” said Hensey. “They just don’t follow through.”
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